Collaborative Communities

The 21st century classroom environment

04/01/2012  |  Mira Korber
Classroom Environment
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Education is evolving. And with it, the classroom learning environments must change too.

Following the 21st century trend of collaborative learning– where the students work with each other and teachers to solve problems – classroom furniture must foster dynamic interactions.

In schools that practice this new educational model, you are likely to see open, welcoming classroom desk arrangements and teachers at desks and chairs on the same level as their students. Straight, front facing student rows are a thing of the past. Computer desks grouped in clusters, waves, and polygons are the new classroom configuration.

Why are innovative methods necessary? They reflect the new, collaborative approach to learning, where teachers are guides and students are problem-solvers.

As Michele McHenry, Director of Design at SMARTdesks, said, “Classrooms are evolving into a much more sophisticated collaborative space. The traditional forward facing students are now allowed to roam and work in groups on mini projects with 3-5 other students and then transition into a full scale project that includes the entire class at the drop of a hat, or the unlock of a table caster. In this environment, students are learning much more from one another and the interaction level is making for a more cohesive group of students.”

Applied Collaboration Systems

At the Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy in Colorado, an all-new cyber café features collaboration furniture. Desk pods, or groups, configure into various forms and shapes. By grouping separate units into harmonious shapes, students learn comfortably and cooperatively. Triangles allow students to pass materials across the computer desks easily, hexagons encourage positive body language interactions, and pinwheels make it easy for students to chat together and then return to their independent stations.

Derek Swanson, Jack Swigert learning coordinator, asserted, “having the ability to really have the students collaborate - that’s how students are learning.” Thanks largely in part to the computer table flexibility, students can study alone or in groups, with or without the technology.

The integration of text and technology is crucial to effective collaborative learning. Flexibility is the most important element; educators need the ability to assign work with or without computer use. Therefore, collaborative learning happens best with computers that open up and slide away in a single motion. Integrated wire management completes such functional learning studios. With cables tucked neatly away, groups can focus on their assignment hassle-free.

Flexible Study Styles

Computer tables designed with collaboration in mind are mobile, flexible, and aesthetically welcoming. Smooth curves enable users to interact with tremendous ease. Studies show that students who work collaboratively are more likely to succeed academically. In Robert E. Slavin’s 1991 study, he found that in 67 cases, 61 percent of collaborative classes produced higher standardized test scores than classes taught without group learning.

Continuing this thread, a critical element of efficient collaborative work is the division of labor among group members. While an old method of teamwork, first described by Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith, division of labor continues to boost efficiency in schools as well as the workplace. (Or, for that matter, in pin factories, where Smith first discovered the benefits of specializing specific tasks.)

Collaboration tables provide each student with his or her own study station and computer resource. The team functions as a whole, but each member is able to hone in on one aspect of the problem, or design a targeted solution. Of course, because computer desks are arranged in collaboratively conducive forms, each member can engage his or her group mates simply by looking up and making eye contact. Using collaboration tables thus improves efficiency and accelerates learning speed.

At the Department of Records in New York City, a new collaboration table fosters solo and team exploration of problems. Barbara Filiberto, who participated in the design of the furniture, said, “If we needed to do something where we were taking students and wanted to show them media...we could configure those tables together, and if we wanted to do something where one is in one corner and one is in another corner where they didn’t have to interact at all, we could do that.”

As Ms. Filiberto articulated, an equally important feature of cooperative learning furniture is the capacity for solo student work. In addition to the valuable group problem-solving time, students must be able to independently analyze the task at hand and generate their own solutions.

Susan Cain, author of an excellent New York Times article, “The Rise of the New Groupthink” (New York Times, January 15, 2012, Sunday Review), wrote, “The most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by Mihaly Csikszentmihayli and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic.”

When the classroom desk functionality allows for student exchange solo and in teams, optimal performance flows naturally. Students can use each other as resources and productively tackle problems on their own.

Collaborative Distance Learning

The age of the Internet has made distance learning accessible and effective. In fact, Ms. Cain described why the Internet is such a powerful creativity and learning tool: “It’s a place where we can be alone together – and this is precisely what gives it power.”

What brings even more power to the Internet is collaborative furniture designed for virtual learning. With teleconferencing equipment, students can innovate together regardless of their physical separation. Premier lighting, sound, and video technology closely simulate real-time interactions; in fact, teleconferencing is so seamless, students can work together anytime, anywhere.

Jeff Korber, president of SMARTdesks, expressed his thoughts on why collaboration tables are revolutionary: “Collaboration furniture, including teleconferencing equipment, are among the most important changes in the educational world. It enables global communication and learning – it doesn’t matter that students and teachers may be thousands of miles away from each other. Problems they solve are at hand because technology has made it so.”

Education is accelerating towards collaborative systems. Computer tables and furniture enable both dynamic group interaction and focused solo thought, by providing the platform necessary to solve today’s global issues. Collaboration in the classroom learning prepares students for collaboration in the real world, and furniture designed with this in mind is the facilitator.

Mira Korber, project analyst at SMARTdesks, is a Yale University student. She also regularly writes blog posts about economics for www.econlife.com. SMARTdesks manufactures ergonomically designed computer desks and conference tables. To learn more, go to www.smartdesks.com.
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  6/18/2012 11:45:13 PM
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